Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

A Gregory Paul/Phil Zuckerman article has been making its rounds in my Facebook news feed for the past week or so, and I’ve been mulling it over since I first saw it: Why do Americans still dislike atheists?

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

Paul and Zuckerman go through a number of correlative facts about atheists that point to a number of positive traits: low rates of racism and sexism, high scientific literacy, opposition to torture, and many more. Yet despite all this, atheists are still denigrated – and they’re denigrated for supposedly being bad or not-as-good people as Christians. Since it is abundantly clear that the statistics of the matter prove the Christian accusers to be objectively wrong, there must be some other reason why atheists are so disliked.

Unfortunately, Paul and Zuckerman don’t especially answer the question. They see it as enough to point out that the given reasons for atheists being disliked are wrong. There is value in that – on honesty points they’ve won the intellectual battle – but I want to go further.

Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the cultivated stigma around the word “atheist”. Richard Dawkins mentions in one of his books a story of a person telling his/her mother about not believing in God. All that is fine, but then the word “atheist” crops up and the mother replies, “To not believe in God is one thing, but to be an atheist!” I’ve paraphrased the story, but the point is that there is a stigma that has kept millions of atheists in the closet. Friends and families of atheists have historically had no idea that they even knew an atheist. As lawmaker Harvey Milk preached about gays, if people learn that they know even one member of an ostracized minority, that minority will be slowly become more accepted – it’s usually harder to hate a person one understands. That’s why coming out campaigns for gays have led to so many civil rights strides over the past 15 years.

But dislike of atheists isn’t anything new. Atheists have been maligned for centuries, even when they represented no threat to the prevailing religious order of the day. It’s simply easy to go after a minority. It’s even easier when that minority holds only a descriptive position, giving its members little reason to unite under any cohesive banner. Indeed, the largest atheist organizations to ever exist are ones which exist today, and their membership levels are not wildly high. With little historic organization, atheists have made for relatively easy targets.

Yet even today we can be seemingly easy targets – key word “seemingly”. Take The God Delusion, for example. One of its biggest problems is how easily opponents have created strawmen around it. Even non-religious people have made notable errors concerning the book: the creators of South Park had an episode where they portrayed Dawkins as claiming that religion is the root of all wars and that there would be peace without it. He has never said any such thing. On any other topic such a glaring mistake would be highly embarrassing.

And, of course, there’s the simple (indeed, very simple) idea that God is good. This is pounded into religious minds, even the mind of the general public, over and over and over. So when something shows up that challenges that notion, it’s the notion itself which has not merely a foothold, but an iron grip on the debate. Our very existence suggests that all these deeply held beliefs of the religious are wrong, and that makes for a tough fight – and a lot of dislike. It’s an uphill battle.

I’m sure there are even more reasons for all this unwarranted hatred. It’s a complicated issue that has a multitude of factors involved; it would be naive and/or dishonest to try and whittle it all down to one issue, whether it be the organizing power of religion or the recent aggressive tone of the “new atheists”. But I do think the best strategy in fighting this negative public perception is probably the Harvey Milk angle. Be vocal and be heard, whether it be in a nice way or an aggressive way. What matters is that people know, hey, atheists exist and, hey, you actually otherwise like us.

26 Responses

  1. I agree that a possible solution is what is happening now. Getting the word out by the “New” (Gnu) atheists helps educate people. The road-side signs are another means of communication, even though it does bring some haters out who feel threatened.

  2. Atheists are hated because, by their very existence, they step on certain people’s fairy tales.

  3. Another atribution of the hatred is xenophobia. People fear those who are different. fMRI studies have been done that show even the most non-racist people fear those of a different skin color. Fear can turn into hatred among those with lesser education.

  4. I’m sure education can play a role, but even the highly educated can be racists. Probably nearly as often.

    The behavior of some atheists doesn’t help you guys out any. That sort of thing is worse the smaller the group is. People are likely to tar everyone with the same brush when they have few or no other examples.

  5. Could it be that folk don’t like militant evangelists – the “my way or the highway” types – whether those are religious evangelists or a-religious evangelists, and that the atheists who make it in the news are often pushy and abrasive?

    It’d be like if every Christian (that you hear about) were like Pat Roberts or one of his ilk.

    Personally, I have no problems with Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc or atheists until they get all pushy with their opinions and presumptive with their pronouncements.

    No one likes a jerk, fair enough?

  6. That’s kind of what I was saying. I think the relatively small size of the atheist population makes people dislike them more, simply because they have fewer positive examples to each negative. Compare to Christianity, everyone has met a pushy unpleasant christian, but everyone also knows countless pleasant ones.

    It’s only part of it, but I’m sure it is a part.

    I think Michael mentions that it’s the connotation ‘atheist’ not the non-belief in God(s) that causes friction many times. If that wasn’t in this post I read it someplace recently.

  7. These last two comments prove exactly what this post by Micheal is about. The stereotypes are no where close to reality. Just like “all Jews are wealthy”, ” all black men have huge penises” and “all atheists are militant and strident”. Thanks for playing the game so well.

  8. There was no attempt to stereotype on my part. I was simply suggesting that IF the more prominent, oft-quoted folk for ANY group come across as rather like jerks, then there is probably a tendency not to like the whole group.

    To the extent that Pat Roberts and some of his crazier quotes are all you know of Christianity, the more you are likely to think poorly of Christians. To the extent that the quotes you hear from atheists are intolerant and abusive, to that extent, folk will tend to think poorly of them.

    That was my only point, not seeking to create or perpetuate a stereotype.

    I was just having a conversation with a liberal friend on this same point: To the extent that one hears only/mostly from the Angry, Insufferable Liberal, to that extent, folk will think poorly of them.

    Your spokespeople have to come across as reasonable and tolerant if you wish “your group” (whichever group we’re speaking of) wishes to come across positively.

    For my part, I have very little in the way of opinion about atheists because I deal with them very rarely. I have no opinion of Richard Dawkins, for instance. I’ve not really read or heard much from him.

    On the other hand, a liberal friend of mine who has read a good deal of Dawkins and listened to him speak (and who does not generally have a low opinion of atheists as a group) has a very low opinion of Dawkins because he comes across (to him) as a know-it-all, “my way or the highway,” insufferably self-important and intolerant kind of fella.

    Just suggesting one possible thing to consider.

    Oh, and twisting the suggestion into some sort of attempt to stereotype is, itself, a rather insufferable and intolerant sort of behavior, the kind that makes one have a lower opinion of another’s ability to communicate like an adult. THAT’s the sort of behavior that turns folk off from WHATEVER group demonstrates that sort of behavior. I’m used to that sort of behavior from the Religious Right (at least on the internets) and, to the extent that I’ve encountered such behavior from the Religious Right, I’m turned off by them. To the extent that ANYONE twists my words into something I have not said, I am unimpressed.

  9. Then be specific. Which prominent atheists that everyone hears are the jerks? Just because you propose something doesn’t mean reality reflects it.

    Richard Dawkins is often described, erroneously, as strident by those who never heard him speak or read his books. Stereotyping is rampant.

  10. I didn’t stereotype either. I don’t think its a stereotype to say there are insufferable people in every group and the smaller the group the more damage those people cause to the whole.

    Explain to me how that’s an atheist stereotype and I’d be happy to listen.

  11. While I am loathe to do so, Nate is absolutely right. We BOTH said that insufferable spokespeople in ANY group (including our own groups) do damage to that group’s reputation. That is a truism, not a stereotype.

    As to naming insufferable atheists, I just said that I have no opinion of atheists. I’m not especially familiar with their writings or points or spokespeople.

    I pointed out what I pointed out simply because the one person I know who HAS recently read/listened to Dawkins a great deal found him to be annoying and dogmatic. For THAT person (again, someone who, like me, is NOT opposed to atheists, in general), Dawkins was a drag on the atheist “brand.”

    These conversations with you and Michael and a handful of other atheists lately are the most I’ve engaged with atheists in a while. Michael and the others I’ve spoken with have seemed generally reasonable and respectful. This ad hom of yours was less so.

  12. “…group and the smaller the group the more damage those people cause to the whole.”

    Where is the evidence of that? I could make a case for the opposite.

  13. Sure you could, bob. I wouldn’t try to say different. Since there is really no way to know why atheists are “disliked” it’s all guesswork anyway. We can all have our theories.

  14. We BOTH said that insufferable spokespeople in ANY group (including our own groups) do damage to that group’s reputation. That is a truism, not a stereotype.

    No, Dan, that is your insufferable, arrogant opinion.

    Also, repeating your anecdote does not help your case at all. I have read all Dawkins’ books, watched videos of his speeches, listened to and read interviews with him and read his opinions on his web site and engaged with him there. He is the opposite of what your ‘liberal’ friend states. Hundreds of people have written that Dawkins’ writings have opened their eyes. Go read his stuff before you spew anecdotes based on sterotypical nonsense.

  15. Clearly, the Civil Rights movement would have been better off without all those angry black militants who alienated the white majority with their rude behavior.

    Polite, respectful, “good” negroes were the better representation of the cause of equality and justice, and Malcom X only hurt the cause with his behavior. Uh-huh.

  16. New England Bob, that sort of behavior is why people don’t like at least individual atheists. You are behaving arrogantly and as if you have a chip on your shoulder. You are stating falsehoods and twisting what I/Nate said.

    You are engaging in ad hom attacks.

    I said, “Those who behave like jerks are a bad reflection upon their ‘group.'”

    You said, “That is your insufferable, arrogant opinion.”

    I stated an observation, a guess response to offer a possible opinion to the question that was asked

    You responded with an ad hom attack.

    None of which makes you a compelling spokesperson for atheism, if that’s what you advocate. It makes you a person with boorish behavior.

    The more atheists who behave as you just did, the more people will have an unfavorable opinion of atheists. (And, of course, the same is true when Christians, or Muslims or little old grannies behave in that way).

    Have a good day.

  17. Copyleft…

    Clearly, the Civil Rights movement would have been better off without all those angry black militants who alienated the white majority with their rude behavior.

    Polite, respectful, “good” negroes were the better representation of the cause of equality and justice, and Malcom X only hurt the cause with his behavior.

    I am a civil rights advocate, a NVDA advocate, a fan of King, Gandhi, Romero and Jesus. There is certainly a time for anger, a time for upsetting the tables and I fully support such behavior in the right circumstances, in the pursuit of justice.

    Nonetheless, the question that was asked was, “why do Americans still dislike atheists?” I was offering one possible idea.

    SOME atheists, like Brother Bob, come across as angry and self-righteous and intolerant at inappropriate times. In my experience (limited though it is), the Bob sort are the minority. Two of us offered a possible response to the question – not claiming to be right, just saying, “perhaps it’s because…” and we were met with ad hom attacks and belittlement.

    Such behavior is not conducive to winning folk over to one’s “side,” whichever side that might be.

    None of which is to say that I am dismissing the need for righteous indignation at the right time. I’ve camped out, protested, raised hell and engaged in NVDA in opposition to war, in support of gay marriage, in support of civil rights. I’ve been part of NVDA organizations. Still, there is a time and place for everything.

    In response to the question asked, though, one POSSIBLE answer is that the face of “atheism” comes across to some as intolerant and abusive. Maybe that’s not the reason, I don’t know. I was just offering a friendly, even-handed suggestion to the question asked.

    NVDA advocates know that, just as surely as there is a time to show righteous indignation, it is also important not to come across as the intolerant and abusive ones in a situation. If you’ve done that, you’ve lost the battle, because NVDA relies upon public support for the position they advocate.

    If you are trying to imply that I am advocating an “Uncle Tom” approach, you are sorely misinformed and making a suggestion that my words do not warrant.

  18. Sorry Dan but you are doing what you accuse me of, since your original post.

  19. I’m rubber, you’re glue?

  20. …and I just realize that I’ve been saying “Pat Roberts” instead of “Pat Robertson.” I guess I was morphing Pat Robertson with Oral Roberts… Hopefully you knew who I meant.

  21. So juvenile. You have no facts and make stuff up and try to pass it off as if it was serious. Go learn how to discuss topics, Dan. I challenge your statements, so then you talk about tone. So typical of someone with nothing of value to contribute.. Go ahead and play by yourself until you grow up.

  22. Bob, one last time, I’ll try to appeal to reason and ignore the ad homs.

    I challenge your statements, so then you talk about tone. So typical of someone with nothing of value to contribute.

    My “statements” was a question in response to the host’s question. I asked…

    Could it be that folk don’t like militant evangelists – the “my way or the highway” types – whether those are religious evangelists or a-religious evangelists, and that the atheists who make it in the news are often pushy and abrasive?

    and…

    No one likes a jerk, fair enough?

    Those are NOT statements of opinions, they are questions asked to see if the host thought there might be something to them.

    You “challenged” my questions, suggesting they were “stereotypes.” Since I did not MAKE a claim (ie, “Atheists ARE HUFFY!”) but rather asked a question, (ie, “Could it be…?” – you can tell it’s a question by the way it is asked in the form of a question and was followed by a question mark).

    Questions are not stereotypes. One has to make a claim in order to be stereotyping. I made no claim, thus made no stereotype.

    In fact, I was quite clear that I have no problem with atheists, but find pushy, intolerant people from ANY group to be unpleasant and unlikeable.

    THOSE were my points.

    Do you disagree that pushy, intolerant people from ANY group tend to be unpleasant and unlikeable? Fine, then disagree with my actual point. But don’t accuse me of what never took place.

    Ad hom attacks do not help you come across as reasonable.

  23. And…

    You have no facts and make stuff up and try to pass it off as if it was serious.

    I made no claim to any facts. I asked a question because of the little negative I’ve heard about atheists came because of people behaving like Bob here just has.

    It’s strange. I thought these sorts of bizarre ad hom attacks out of nowhere were the exclusive domain of some on the religious right, but no, Bob has proven that hunch of mine to be wrong.

    Is Dawkins as pugnacious and devoid of social skills as Bob appears to be?

  24. Fair enough, Dan. In that case, my response to the OP would be “Who CARES that bigoted Americans don’t like the uppity atheists? Screw ’em.”

  25. Fair enough.

  26. What about the bigoted atheists?

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